When lockdown measures first eased, I went for a walk along the beach near Lisbon, Portugal. The sea is usually comforting, yet this time, looking out at the waves, I was reminded of our collective destruction and exploitation of the environment – and of how this has contributed to the severity of the pandemic.
I have spent the past two decades with Seas At Risk, an umbrella entity for European environmental organisations, working to protect the ocean. And while huge gains have been made throughout recent years, ocean threats still keep coming. We may be winning battles, but we’re in danger of losing the war because we are not addressing the root causes of the problem. We must redefine our relationship with nature and protect the fundamentals that make life on Earth possible, enjoyable, and profitable.
Many ocean pressures are created through the way our economies function and what we produce and consume. The use of natural resources like fossil fuels, metals, sand and biomass has more than tripled since 1970 – with annual global extraction of materials growing from 27 to 92 billion tonnes.
This is not simply due to population growth. The annual average material demand per person grew from 7.4 to over 12.2 tonnes, an increase mainly due to a disproportionate increase in upper-middle and higher income countries, reflecting the growing income and wealth inequality between the richest and the poorest. If we are to stop mindlessly destroying the ocean – our most valuable resource – we need to change the fundamentals and transition to a sustainable, circular, and sharing economy.
Overexploitation, destruction and pollution of the ocean must be stopped at source by changing the way we produce and consume. This includes designing products for circular use, focusing on long-life rather than throwaway products, recycling well-recyclable materials like metals (as opposed to plastics), sharing rather than owning cars and planning for resource-efficient cities. These are the necessary building blocks of future, sustainable economies.
We need to rethink our production and consumption systems and their underlying business models to move us from material consumerism to systems based on satisfying consumer needs. To put it simply: we do not need cars, we need mobility. We do not need pesticides, we need healthy plants. We do not need plastic bottles, we need water. As more people realise this, innovative and profitable businesses are springing up that meet consumer needs while supporting nature.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are providing financial support to contain the economic fallout and job losses. Under pressure to provide a rapid economic recovery, the easy route is to ignore nature, in favour of propping up our existing model, including large polluting companies. This would lead us further down the path of our current destructive, extractive economic model towards environmental, social and economic disaster.
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Dr. Monica Verbeek is the executive director of Seas At Risk, the Brussels-based umbrella organisation of environmental NGOs from across Europe that promotes ambitious policies for marine protection at European and international level.